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Wharton Using MOOCs To Recruit MBAs

Statue of Ben Franklin on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Statue of Ben Franklin on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School today (Feb. 11) began using its suite of MOOC courses in business fundamentals as a recruiting tool for MBA applicants. The school said that it will now bundle four core courses with a capstone project and award a certificate of completion to students who finish the program.

Wharton said it will invite the program’s top 50 performers to apply to one of its graduate business programs and waive the application fee. The school also will offer up to five $20,000 scholarships to students admitted to its MBA program who have received the best grades in the program during the previous 12 months.

“A key component for us as an institution is the possibility to identify talent from a pool of participants who might not have considered business education before,” said Wharton Dean Geoff Garrett.


Wharton has been the most aggressive of the top business schools in offering free MOOC courses to students. The school first ventured into the MOOC arena in 2012 and has since produced 15 different online courses. Wharton’s Foundation Series of courses alone in accounting, finance, marketing and operations management have been completed by more than 50,000 participants. Those offerings are abbreviated versions of the classes in Wharton’s full-time MBA core curriculum.

The business specialization, launched with Wharton’s online education partner, Coursera, begins this spring on April 6th with the school’s introductory course in marketing. The cost of the four courses with the new capstone project will be $595. Students who complete the sequence will receive what Wharton is calling a “Coursera Verified Certificate.” The new bundle appears to be somewhat competitive with a $1,500 offering by Harvard Business School called CORe (Certificate of Readiness).

The HBS sequence of three courses in business basics, however, requires prospective students to apply for admission and is on a proprietary digital platform developed by Harvard’s HBX online initiative. It is based on case studies, video snippets from professors and protagonists in the cases, features cold calls to students, and imposes numerous deadlines for the completion of coursework. Harvard also maintains a transcript of grades in its program so it can verify them with employers.


So far, Wharton and Coursera have reached agreement with at least two companies to create a real strategic challenge for students who agree to take the sequence of four core courses. Shazam, a mobile app company, and Snapdeal, which runs the largest e-commerce marketplace in India, are among the first two organizations to participate. The leadership teams of those companies will then review the highest scoring projects from students.

Bundling together the courses is dubbed a specialization by Coursera which says it now offers specializations from 19 university partners in such fields as digital marketing, global affairs, music production, and data science. Coursera has found that when it offers a specialization in a field, enrollment in the courses can increase by threefold.

“What we found over the past year is that our learners are very attracted to these multi-course sequences called specializations,” said Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera and former president of Yale University. “They have really hit a responsive chord. Our learner population divides up to people who want lifelong learning and others who want skills to help them in their careers. That latter half has shown tremendous interest in specializations which allow them to go deeper than a single course would. The Wharton specialization has a dual purpose: It allows people in the workforce to upgrade their understanding of business fundamentals but it is also a great recruiting tool.”


Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera

Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Levin said the addition of a capstone project—which will be peer graded—is expected to significantly increase the appeal of the Wharton specialization. “Everyone will work on one project at the end of the four courses,” he said. “In this case, there would be strategic questions to explore, a strategy problem in the context of a company that will ask learners to solve it. Capstone projects will be graded and students will evaluate the work of each others. If the rubric is set well and the instructor gives clear guidance, peer grading is very highly correlated with the professor’s own assessments.”

Students in the Wharton courses will otherwise be graded by professors who award numerical grades based on both participation and test results. “Students with scores above a certain percentage determined by the faculty member in each course will receive a verified certificate,” explained Anne Trumbore, director of Wharton online learning initiatives. She declined to reveal the school’s estimate of how many students are likely to take the specialization. “We have been gratified by the overwhelming response to all of Wharton’s online courses, and we hope students will be enthusiastic about the specialization,” Trumbore said.

Some deans have been less willing to share their coursework for free online. But Wharton believes its aggressive move into MOOCs has had a positive impact on the Wharton brand, helping to give the school a magnified global identity. In any case, more business schools will apparently jump on this bandwagon. “We are working on a number of these with other business schools,” confirmed Levin. “There will be a couple more in the next few months.”